Future Pluperfect: Chapter 19


Textual Poaching Alert: Marvel owns everyone, although Social Services would have stripped custody long ago...

"Are you sure that's going to be a good idea?" Jean didn't want to have this conversation out loud, but it would have been too obvious - not to mention rude - to do it telepathically.

"I don't see any other way to avoid risking both man and machine," Mirrin answered. "If radar isn't going to provide any useful data..."

"It isn't," Iceman confirmed as he walked back from the cockpit. He had taken over (taken back, more appropriately) the comm. duties from Cannonball a few hours ago. But despite much bravado about his impresario skills in that area, he had failed to get anything that the younger man hadn't been able to spot on his own. "Cannonball's right - they have very quiet fish down there."

"Speaking as the rusty old strategist here," Havok broke in, looking up from the printouts he was perusing, "I think it's a pretty good idea. Especially if Mirrin can get Cannonball to ground level without us resorting to tossing him out of the airlock."

"But," the projectile in question protested.

"If you've done that with X-Force, I really don't want to know," Cyclops interrupted. "I also don't want you going alone. We only have one flyer on this team, but Mirrin's capable of watching your back... I know you're nearly invulnerable when you blast, Cannonball, I just don't like to push the envelope so far before I have to, okay?"

"Yes, sir."

"So, everyone's on the same page? We're clear, no problems?" Cyclops looked around at his teammates, all of whom but one nodded.

It's not the tactical I'm worried about, Jean answered her husband telepathically. Sam's going to have to see the bodies...

It won't rattle him anymore than he's been rattled. And if it does, that's why I'm sending Mirrin along with him, Cyclops answered back.

Are you sure that's a comfort?

Not especially.

The quiet - even when you know that two people speaking telepathically don't need silence, it tends to be granted anyway - was broken by the click-click of Mirrin checking the ammunition in a rifle by the forward munitions closet. Without turning around, she tossed it in Cannonball's general direction.

The man, now dressed for flight, easily caught it one-handed and courtesy of Cable's and Domino's constant exhortations to always check his own weapons (no matter who had already done so) performed the same test on his own.

Nodding at the satisfactory condition of his rifle, Cannonball looked up at Cyclops. "Ready to leave, sir."

A few feet away, Havok watched the cool efficiency of the soldier he still remembered as a gangly boy with a brush cut and a wide-eyed stare and reminded himself not to call Cannonball 'kid' anymore.

"You're clear on this, Mirrin?" Cyclops turned to face the future-born warrior. Previous experience in battle with the woman had convinced him that she shared Cable's willingness to abuse semantic loopholes when it came to following orders.

"Down to the ground, run a surface check while Cannonball performs air surveillance, and then back to the plane," she confirmed with no trace of humor. If she realized what Cyclops was doing, she didn't seem to care. "Primary objective is to determine the extent of Kurioon infestation among the four islands. Secondary objective is to find the hatching site and/or possible trail taken by Dayspring and Domino. Overriding objective is to keep Cannonball in one piece."

Cyclops nodded. "Go with peace," he told them in Askani.

Both Cannonball and Mirrin made the same reply in the same tongue, albeit out of sync. Mirrin, temporarily surprised out of her soldiers' impassive façade, looked questioningly at her partner.

"Ah don't know what it means, all Ah know is that Cable used to say it before heading off on a mission," he explained with a shrug. "It sounds sorta like his name in Askani, but Ah don't think it is."

"Actually, his surname comes from that expression," Mirrin replied with a gentle half-smile that looked completely out of place on her. "It is a... derivation, I believe, is how you'd say it. What you said means 'return with hope'."

Cannonball nodded and the soldier-masks returned and two heartbeats later, Jean wasn't sure she had seen the flash of emotion that had passed between the two. Sam, well trained by Cable, wasn't leaking anything and Mirrin never showed a thing, so there was no way to know.

Havok and Jean watched as Mirrin reached out for Cannonball's shoulder and the air around them shimmered and the pair disappeared.

"Strange ducks, those two."

"Indeed," Jean agreed.

Sam had been teleported before, several times, but he never remembered to do what he always reminded himself that he wanted to do - keep his eyes open in transport. This time was no different. Before he opened his eyes, he felt the soft slide of sand beneath his boots and the warm, humid air of a beach and smelled both the sweet fragrance of exotic flowers as well as the distant smell of something less pleasant, like a putrefying fish.

"Don't," Mirrin commanded softly. "Don't open your eyes."

"Why not?"

"Trust me."

"Ah'm not a kid, Sister, and Ah have to be able to see where Ah'm going," he replied with a mixture of anger and irritation. Anger at the woman - who couldn't be that much older than him, if at all - for treating him like a sensitive child, irritation with this selfsame woman for continuing to think that she could blithely order him around. She had manipulated him into killing that telepath in Lebanon (whether or not it was necessary was besides the point, he could have come to that same decision by his own thought processes and felt much better about the deed); she wasn't going to get a second chance.

"Open them, then." Evenly, in that same indulgent tone that Cable used when he knew you were stepping into shit purely to spite him.

So it was really no surprise that when Cannonball opened his eyes, he wished he hadn't.

It had been not quite two days since Cable and Domino had been killed, but exposure to near-constant sunlight and salt breezes had put the bodies in terrible shape. That was the smell. Lying on the beach, there was no protection not only from the elements, but also from scavengers. A circle of scattered entrails, blood, and chunks of discolored flesh ringed what remained of the bloated bodies; scraps of hair, clothes, and other inedibles marred the otherwise pristine expanse of white sand.

"This is my only reference point," Mirrin explained gently, her soft voice balancing otherwise unapologetic words. "I wanted to hop us over to the next island." She pointed in the opposite direction of the bodies, across the small expanse of water.

"No point now," Cannonball replied, swallowing hard to counteract the still strong need to retch. "Unless you want to start there."

"Well, we know that there is a Kurioon presence here," Mirrin reasoned aloud. "If it hasn't stretched to the others, then we can bring the team down to one of them. I suspect the difficulty will lie in hiding the plane."

 "Ah can start my sweep in that direction," Cannonball offered, pointing towards where Mirrin had originally intended to teleport them. "Or do you want me to stay close?" He left his tone ambiguous, not wanting to know if she wanted to protect him and somehow doubting it was the other way around.

"I can stay in telepathic contact with you wherever you wander," Mirrin replied, eyes closed as she telepathically scanned their immediate surroundings. "But let me know if there is any activity whatsoever. We don't want to attract any sort of attention. It will make time-walking difficult."

"How?" Genuine curiosity, not doubt, and Cannonball softened his mental shields enough to make that clear to his partner.

"At best, they are waiting for us with increased arms," she answered. "At worst... At worst, the cost of rescuing Dayspring and Domino becomes prohibitive."

"Ah thought getting Cable was the whole point." Sam knew he sounded a little petulant and a lot confused, but didn't care.

Mirrin muttered something to herself in Askani and then gave Cannonball and ironic smile. "There is a point at which the mission becomes more important than the man," Mirrin said as if she was remembering something bittersweet. Then her expression hardened. "Dayspring isn't the only one who can fulfill his task. He's just the best suited. If the price of making sure Nathan is the one to complete the mission grows too dear, then... a less expensive option must be found."

Cannonball stood there stunned for a moment, then turned and walked a few feet away, still under cover of the trees. He stared out at the lapping waves, at the beautiful flowers, at the half-picked-over, half-rotting head (the T-O virus proving impervious to scavengers but not nature) lying in the sand. Finally he turned back to Mirrin.

"Everyone's sayin' that you'd sacrifice the lot of us to save Cable. But you'd also sacrifice Cable to save your mission, whatever it is," Cannonball accused, voice rising. "Did he know that before he ended up on that beach, or did he die hopin' that you're gonna go back and pull him out before he gets his head cut off?"

"Dayspring knows this lesson better than you could ever want to, Samuel. He has watched both family and friends sacrifice themselves for the good of his cause," Mirrin hissed at him. She didn't sound angry, he realized, just trying to keep her voice down. "He asks no more quarter than he has given."

"Ah thought you were his friend," he said after a long moment. "Ah thought you'd give more quarter for him." Disappointment fairly dripped from his words.

"I am his friend," Mirrin answered quietly, eyes closed either in frustration or pain. "And it is precisely because of that that I do not betray his goals. Do you have any idea of what he sacrificed to come here-and-now? Almost all that he is. What sort of friend would I be if I threw that away?"

Sam couldn't come up with an answer to that, no more than he could sustain his anger. Through his still-softened shields he could feel the regret that Mirrin was undoubtedly trying to show him (why else would her normally impermeable shields leak?) and all of a sudden, he felt like a fool.

"You're not," Mirrin said, not even trying to hide that she could read his thoughts so clearly. She crossed the gap between them and looked up at Sam, resting a hand on his shoulder. "You are acting passionately on the information you have. Your loyalty to Nathan is unswerving and you have your doubts about mine. You are entitled to them, just as I am entitled not to justify myself before them. We must establish our own trust, not rely upon our mutual relationship with Nathan. In the meanwhile, we have work to do."

Sam ran his hand over his face as Mirrin turned away. "Ah'm... there is no sorry," he sighed. "Where should Ah start my sweep?"

"I think you had the right of it," Mirrin said, nodding at the non-apology. "Head towards the other islands and we'll see about bringing everyone down. They are probably already wondering where we are."

"Ah'll comm. them from the air," Cannonball agreed. "And Ah'll stay outta sight."

 With that, he took off.

***

Mirrin! Cannonball!

The telepathic scream forced Mirrin to wince and she felt/heard Cannonball groan along their telepathic link.

Yes, Jean? Coolly, although there was underlying concern for the terror-laced mind-call. She had been prowling along through the forest that seemed to run the course of most of the island. Her initial movements had been careful and slow, done in careful consideration of both her telepathy and the small heat sensor she had been given. But the sensor had gone off too many times on account of the wildlife native to the island that she had adjusted it to only warn her of temperature spikes that would include large troop movements and had proceeded with a little more liberty. That did not mean, however, that she could stand in the shade and chat idly.

We can't sense you two. The mini-Cerebro isn't picking up anything and Iceman can't reach either of your comm. units.

We're fine, Cannonball answered, although Mirrin could still sense the untruth of that statement. There's some sort of force field up. That's probably why Domino's SOS got lagged. I don't know where the borders are or what the ceiling might be - I don't see any buoys or floating broadcasters, so it's either on underwater anchors or from a central source.

It's probably electromagnetic shielding, Mirrin didn't pause in her movements as she spoke. She was sure any Kurioon guards would be watching solely through their own heat sensors and they were less likely to pick her up if she kept her movements similar to those of passing animals. And it's undoubtedly on a central source. The Canaanites would have very little experience with water-based fortifications.

Cyclops wants to know if there will be a problem landing the plane, Jean said after a pause, presumably one she had spent passing on the information. We have some EM shielding.

Then probably not. We'll discuss this later, Mirrin answered. She wasn't intending to be rude, but it was hard enough watching out for herself as well as maintaining contact with Cannonball without yet another distraction. She sent a wave of mild apology down the link to Jean.

Phoenix out, then, Jean replied with a telepathic version of a nod.

Kilometers away, Cannonball flew at tree level over the second of the three islands south of the one Cable and Domino had died on. So far, he hadn't seen any sort of sign that the Kurioon was active there or had even visited. There was no sign of civilization at all and he mused on the possible uses as a vacation spot before reigning his imagination back in.

I'm starting to suspect we won't be finding any incursion anywhere but on that island, he reported to Mirrin as he flew over the southern end of the last island. In fact, if that canoe-like thingie is any indication, the Kurioon doesn't even seem to care. We got fishermen down there, would you believe. They're checking for shellfish a couple of klicks from the thirty-eighth century's most dangerous mobile army unit's headquarters.

Mirrin smiled at the amused tone of Cannonball's mental voice. Well, if all of the action is over here, you might as well join me. I'm running out of trees to hide behind.

Be there in two shakes of a rooster's tail, Cannonball answered with a grin as he changed direction, his mood greatly improved for having flown so long. It was an expression that had flummoxed Cable for the longest time (before the big man had decided that roosters were unacceptable chronological devices because of the lack of continuity between one rooster's tail and another and had consciously forbidden himself to think upon the matter any further) and Sam allowed himself to enjoy the irony of using it in a context that hopefully included Cable's rescue.

Following Mirrin's mental flare, Cannonball found the woman at the edge of the trees a kilometer or two up the beach from where Cable's and Domino's remains lay.

"Well, I guess we know how they got here," he said as he landed, gesturing to the small boat hidden among rocks and artfully arranged flora close to the shore. It was nothing fancier than a rowboat with a small outboard motor and Cannonball idly wondered how Domino and Cable had balanced themselves in the rickety transport. "And that they got here without being spotted, else there'd probably be signs of fighting close by."

"Indeed," Mirrin agreed. "We can probably extrapolate that they arrived from one of the more populated islands to the south, but it's really no matter. The Kurioon never found the vessel."

"'Cause it's still intact?" Cannonball looked around. They were effectively hidden by the trees but still had a mostly unobstructed view of beach and coastline. "They might've found it after they found Cable and Domino... Leave it as a trap, make it look like a safe landing point."

"That strategy requires more subtlety than the Kurioon usually possesses," Mirrin answered. "Think back on your experiences with them; there have been several occasions where they would have accomplished more had they chosen a method other than brute force. But the Kurioon still relies almost exclusively on the fact that they are superior fighters. The Harvesters and Colorless are nearly incapable of artifice and the more advanced models are merely stealthy and can perform a wider array of tasks."

"Like sneaking up on us and destroying our escape routes in advance," Cannonball agreed ruefully. Minot had proven that several times over.

"Exactly. At Green, the Kurioon start acquiring some level of independent thought, but even then, the scope is narrow. They act as they react - according to probability and logic. The ability to be irrational is one of the few advantages man has left."

Cannonball thought on the matter as he cleared branches away from the top of the boat on the off chance that Cable and Domino had left something behind. They hadn't. "Okay, so logic says that the odds of anyone else important stumbling across the boat are small enough that it doesn't make sense to lie in wait. But that just means that it probably isn't a trap, not that they never found it."

Mirrin chuckled. "The beach is undisturbed. Had any of the soldiers found the boat, they would have done as we are doing and investigated it. But we found the boat still covered and the sand near it is undisturbed in comparison to the surroundings. Either they put everything back the way they found it - including smoothing out the beach - or they were never here in the first place."

"Thank you, Mr. Holmes," Cannonball drawled, not bothering to explain the reference at Mirrin's raised eyebrow. "But what does this tidbit of information do for us?"

"It tells us that the Kurioon knew that Nathan and Domino were alone. The boat isn't that well hidden and were they unsure, the entire island would have been crawling with seeker-guards," Mirrin explained as she looked around at both trees and horizon.

Cannonball watched as Mirrin closed her eyes and seemed to meditate. He knew she was committing the scene to memory, presumably to have another reference point to teleport to apart from the spot where she and Jean had watched Cable and Domino be killed, and allowed himself to ruminate on the various quirks of the teleporters he had known over the years.

Ilyana could traverse both time and place with her stepping disks, but there were enough mishaps and missed destinations to make Cannonball wonder about how strong her control over the disks was - he vaguely remembered some explanation having to do with using dark magic for good purposes, but Magik had never been especially forthcoming in those matters. And then there was that intermediate stop in Limbo to negotiate around.

Nightcrawler's pit stop was also in some other dimension, an improvement over Limbo, but in this one he was still subject gravity and velocity and all the other little quirks of physics. And Kurt had a distance limit, something that was occasionally enough to render his mutation unhelpful to the situation even if his agility and brains could usually compensate.

Lila... Lila had her Dyson sphere and her ability to teleport whole planets if she felt like it. There was probably more, but Sam admitted that he had been too... distracted to take notes on the rest of it. Lila had some rather impressive other powers that were strictly female, too.

"Ready?"

Cannonball snapped out of his reverie to find Mirrin smirking at him. "Yeah. How do you want to divvy up the search here? Same as before?"

"As beautiful as this unmarred expanse of nature is, I've had my fill of wandering through trees," Mirrin answered after a pause. "The nest must be on the other side of the island, so it's only a matter of how we get over there without being spotted."

Cannonball allowed himself a grin. "Want a lift?"

Mirrin looked at him questioningly and Cannonball understood why. For the first few weeks he had treated her like a dignitary who would be disrespected with a touch and then just an hour or so earlier he had accused her of wanting to sacrifice all of the X-Men. "Look, if Ah can carry Cable, Ah don't think you're gonna be much of a strain. Besides, it's the most effective way there if you can't 'port us."

Mirrin nodded and Cannonball took her into an embrace - it would be less awkward to hold her with her back to his front, but this way Mirrin could hold on to him should he require a free arm.

After they blasted off, Mirrin wriggled a little to move over so that she was pressed against Cannonball's hip. The position allowed her to see forward as well as behind them and it seemed to ease the discomfiture of the forced intimacy.

They followed the tree line up the coast and away from their original landing point, but soon the trees started to thin out and they had to rise into the air to avoid outcroppings of rocks.

What now?

The nest is probably inland rather that along the coast, but I'm not sure how safe we are over open ground. We have fulfilled our mission objective, so we should venture as close as we dare and no further, Mirrin replied.

Thinking back to his earlier exchange with Mirrin, Cannonball was inclined to turn back now rather than jeopardize any chance at rescuing Cable and Domino. Then, before he could say anything, he something out of the corner of his eye.

Uh, I didn't read the environmental report too closely, but what are the odds that really big birds are native to this island?

The large bird was still a distance away, but it was flying straight for them.

One of the disappeared mutants had the ability to turn into a bird, correct?

Crap, Cannonball groaned, thinking more impolite thoughts at a level where he knew Mirrin couldn't 'hear' him. The Bangladeshi kid. I don't remember his name. He can turn into a condor. Cannonball suddenly dropped their altitude and headed offshore, trying not to think about the fact that their being spotted may have cost Cable and Domino their lives. Do you want to 'port us away?

He's seen us, but he doesn't know we're human, Mirrin replied, her mental voice sounding a little preoccupied. I've been hiding us as a bird to confuse any possible witnesses, but we're not any sort of bird that he would have ever seen, so he's probably curious. If we suddenly disappeared, he'd get suspicious.

So I let him come... sniff us, or whatever the bird equivalent is? Idly, irrationally, Cannonball mused that Warren had been wrong. This was a situation in which Angel would have been infinitely better suited than he was.

Flonq, no! I can work on 'convincing' him that we are just a single, tiny little bird of no importance, but that might make us look like a meal. We're going to have to outfly him.

Cannonball groaned aloud. "Great. We get to play chicken pretendin' we're a pigeon."

You doubt your ability to outfly our pursuer? Mirrin didn't understand the expression her partner had used - her colloquial English extended only so far - but could guess the meaning from her telepathic link with Cannonball.

He's what, seventeen? I know what I was like at that age... a regular barnstormer and a showoff, even when I was just showing off for myself. He's going to be a hotshot and he's going to be hard to shake. Hold on tight.

No sooner had Mirrin tightened her grip on Cannonball's midriff than she found herself fighting back a yelp. They plummeted in free fall as the condor swooped closer, claws extended, and cawed out a warning.

Mirrin didn't need to watch the ground to know it was coming up quickly; her spatial sense, honed through years of teleportation, sent off warnings all on its own. Terminal velocity had long since been reached when she felt Cannonball's arms tighten around her as he pulled them up sharply into an upswoop. Peering around the shoulder her face was pressed against, Mirrin caught a glimpse of wingtip. They had not shaken their pursuer.

With the lump in her throat forced back down through the sheer gravitational force Cannonball was attempting to overcome, Mirrin tried to go over their options. Teleporting was still not a good choice - even in bird form, the teenager had some human thought processes (and those had probably been either augmented or co-opted by the Kurioon) - and would register their disappearance. That in turn would bring out the seeker-guards and two humans attempting to pass as a tiny bird would not fool them.

A sharp left turn gave Mirrin another glimpse of their pursuer. He was still close and getting closer, but more disturbing were the waves of joy and exhilaration emanating from the teen bird. He was enjoying this, perhaps too much. The Kurioon undoubtedly had someone watching the boy-bird and, no matter that the thirty-eighth century was as unkind to aviary beasts as it was to land-based beasts, the sheer pleasure radiating off the condor would attract curiosity if not suspicion.

I'm taking us to the trees, Cannonball warned. I don't know where else to go and I think he'll eventually catch up to us if we stay in open ground. Can you risk teleporting us when he can't see us?

That will work. The sooner the better, I suspect. The thrill of the chase will prove no less an attractor of attention than two warriors flying through the air carrying rifles.

Another sudden drop in altitude, this one not as severe, and Cannonball had them rapidly approaching the tree line. Belatedly, he realized that Mirrin had referred to him as her equal and filed the thought away for future contemplation. Slowing down enough to slip between branches, he brought them to ground at a spot darkened by thick foliage overhead. He looked around before he stopped blasting, wanting the protection of his blast field for the both of them until he knew there was nobody around.

Mirrin felt the static-electric buzz of the field dissipate and took a step back and out of Cannonball's embrace. Breathing deeply, she chuckled.

"What?"

"You look... surprisingly relaxed," Mirrin answered a little breathily. Between the speed at which they were traveling and adrenaline rush and the thin air from the altitude, oxygen had been at a premium she hadn't realized until it was more plentiful. Fighting back lightheadedness, Mirrin tried not to stumble.

"It's flying," Cannonball answered with a shrug. "Ah may scoff at the tendencies of youth," he smiled crookedly as he waved his arms in mimicry of their recent aerial acrobatics, "but Ah'm not above admitting that Ah still enjoy them."

"Good," Mirrin nodded. "Dayspring's love/hate relationship with his own gifts has not infected you."

Cannonball chortled. "When we catch up with him, Ah'm gonna tell him you said that."

Mirrin nodded again and smiled as she reached for Cannonball's shoulder. "You do that."

The air shimmered as a lone condor circled above the treeline, searching for his prey.


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